Dynamic distributions and population declines of Golden-winged Warblers

Studies in Avian Biology -1
By: , and 



With an estimated breeding population in 2010 of 383,000 pairs, the Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) is among the most vulnerable and steeply declining of North American passerines. This species also has exhibited among the most dynamic breeding distributions, with populations expanding and then contracting over the past 150 years in response to regional habitat changes, interactions with closely related Blue-winged Warblers (V. cyanoptera), and possibly climate change. Since 1966, the rangewide population has declined by >70% (-2.3% per year; latest North American Breeding Bird Survey data), with much steeper declines in the Appalachian Mountains bird conservation region (-8.3% per year, 98% overall decline). Despite apparently stable or increasing populations in the northwestern part of the range (Minnesota, Manitoba), population estimates for Golden-winged Warbler have continued to decline by 18% from the decade of the 1990s to the 2000s. Population modeling predicts a further decline to roughly 37,000 individuals by 2100, with the species likely to persist only in Manitoba, Minnesota, and possibly Ontario. To delineate the present-day distribution and to identify population concentrations that could serve as conservation focus areas, we compiled rangewide survey data collected in 2000-2006 in 21 states and 3 Canadian provinces, as part of the Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project (GOWAP), supplemented by state and provincial Breeding Bird Atlas data and more recent observations in eBird. Based on >8,000 GOWAP surveys for Golden-winged and Blue-winged warblers and their hybrids, we mapped occurrence of phenotypically pure and mixed populations in a roughly 0.5-degree grid across the species’ ranges. Hybrids and mixed Golden-winged-Blue-winged populations occurred in a relatively narrow zone across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, southern Ontario, and northern New York. Phenotypically pure Golden-winged Warbler populations occurred north of this hybrid zone, but the future of northern populations in the Great Lakes states and Canada (where >80% of the species occurs at present) is highly uncertain because of continued northward expansion of Blue-winged Warblers and hybridization. A second, now-disjunct band of Golden-winged Warbler populations exists in the Appalachian Mountains from southeastern New York to northern Georgia, surrounded at lower elevations by Blue-winged Warblers. Important concentrations of Golden-winged Warblers persist in the Allegheny Mountains region of West Virginia, the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee, Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, Allegheny Plateau and Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, and in the Hudson Highlands of southern New York. These high-elevation Appalachian populations have escaped contact with Blue-winged Warblers until very recently and represent important refugia for conservation and management; other Appalachian populations are rapidly declining. In addition, based on historical records and standardized surveys across the wintering grounds, we identified three regions of concentration: highlands and Caribbean slopes from Guatemala and Belize to northwestern Nicaragua; middle elevations (both slopes) in Costa Rica and western Panama; and in an arc of the northern Andes from central Colombia to northern Venezuela. It is possible that the winter range has been shifting towards the northwest in recent decades, paralleling shifts in the breeding distribution. Future conservation efforts for Golden-winged Warbler need to include close monitoring of the dynamic phenotypic and genetic distributional shifts, and may need to consider the “winged warbler” complex together as a highly adaptable evolutionary unit.

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Dynamic distributions and population declines of Golden-winged Warblers
Series title Studies in Avian Biology
Chapter 1
ISBN 978-1-4822-4068-9
Volume 49
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher CRC Press
Publisher location Boca Raton, FL
Contributing office(s) Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center
Description 26 p.
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Subtype Monograph
Larger Work Title Golden-winged Warbler ecology, conservation, and habitat management (Studies in Avian Biology, volume 49)
First page 3
Last page 28
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